Personal memories of Odette Hallowes.
Odette Hallowes GC, MBE, Legion d’honneur (28 April 1912 – 13 March 1995) was an Allied Intelligence agent during World War 2. In this final part of a three part series, her Granddaughter, Sophie, shares personal memories of Odette.
To me and Odette’s other grandchildren, Odette was always just Minou, our generous-hearted and very loving Grandmother. She never really talked about the brutality she endured in prison and certainly never expressed any bitterness towards her torturers. However, she did say that they made one crucial mistake when they were using their “methods to try and get the truth”, and that was that they had placed her facing a window from which she could see the tops of the trees. She felt that as long as she could see those trees, she would not be broken.
Odette was deeply perceptive and she often seemed to know precisely what others were thinking. One very poignant thing she told us was that she remembered looking into the eyes of her torturer and in that instant, seeing that he had recognised that he would never be able to break her. She explained this by saying that there is a connection that can be made between the eyes of two people and all at once there is a complete understanding of the situation.
I believe that Odette’s strength of character was established in childhood as her family instilled a strong sense of duty into her. Undoubtedly duty influenced her desire to do her part during the war and afterwards to represent her comrades who died. I also know from Minou herself that the polio and temporary blindness she had suffered as a child helped her to endure the solitude and darkness she encountered in prison. In addition, her mother, Yvonne Brailly, my great-grandmother, saw the death of her husband in WW1, survived both World Wars and brought up her children as a widow. She was a strong role model to her daughter.
Odette remained very proudly French throughout her life. She never lost her French accent, was always impeccably dressed and was a wonderful cook, making delicious French soups and casseroles. Even well into old age, she was the epitome of elegance. Her determination to maintain her sense of self when in prison is typical of her personality. She was always conscious of keeping her mind and body active and she would tell us how difficult this was when she was in solitary confinement and had absolutely nothing to do. She would set herself daily tasks: she would “polish” the floor with a piece of wood inch by inch. She would also imagine making clothes for her three little daughters and it was the thought of them that deepened her will to stay alive.
I remember Odette being very aggrieved at those who tried to deny the holocaust had taken place. She was always modest about her accomplishments and throughout her life she carried with her the memory of her comrades who failed to return, always professing that they did more and suffered far more profoundly than she did. She would say that she was just an ordinary woman, who had seen human beings at their worst as well as at their very best – thereby showing the kindness of spirit that was at the very heart of her character.
As a family, we feel very fortunate that Odette survived the War. Like all people who had relatives who fought or died or suffered, we try hard not to take the peace and freedom we enjoy today for granted. Odette’s three daughters were very young when she was released from capture and it was only over time that they learned her full story. All of us find her bravery and her unwavering determination to protect the identity and whereabouts of her fellow agents truly inspiring and her story flows down the generations.
As a final thought, we believe Odette’s story has taught us three things.
Firstly, if we look hard enough, we can all find hidden reserves of strength and courage within ourselves, when we most need it. Secondly, we can always retain our dignity and good values, no matter what is going on in the world around us.
And finally…we can always find something to be grateful for, however small, just as Odette was so grateful for that one small simple leaf that she found in the prison camp that gave her so much hope.